As hard as it is to remember back to the B.O.C. days (Before Obama Coverage) there was a time when news about race and culture in the United States didn’t always revolve around the president.
For example, if you look at 2007 it was a particularly nasty year for the racial conversation in this country and most of what was covered made you want to run from the television.
A walk down memory lane reminds us that 2007 was the year of Don Imus’ “Nappy Headed Hoes” comment about the Rutgers’ female basketball team, the brutal Black-on-Black rape of a mother and her son by 10 teenagers in the Dunbar Florida housing complex, Michael Vick’s conviction on dog-fighting charges, the whole Jena 6 fiasco, and lost in much of this furor was the case of Megan Williams. While Williams received the least coverage overall, she’s come back with a vengeance this week, denying the very story that made her “not” famous and possibly taking us back to the nasty racial rhetoric of 2007.
For those of you too caught up in the Jena 6 two years ago to remember Megan Williams, her story was the worst racial event of the year that was seldom discussed or covered. Williams was a 20-year-old African-American woman living outside of Charleston, W.V., with her mother and sister, due to her mental disabilities. Williams claimed that in the spring of 2007 she was lured to her ex-boyfriend’s trailer for what she thought was a party. But instead of a party her ex-boyfriend and his family (men and women) held her hostage for seven days raping her, beating her, stabbing her and forcing her to drink urine, eat feces and swallow rat poison. She was finally rescued after police received an anonymous tip by phone on her whereabouts and while inspecting the home a cop heard her screams for help from a tool shed.
This was an open and shut case, five of the assailants were sentenced to long jail terms (half of them already had criminal pasts) and Williams, after weeks in the hospital to recover from her wounds, received gifts and attention from the national Black community. Even so her story was mostly relegated to the back page of national newspapers and only a sound bite or two on cable news. At the time I was disgusted and bemused by the coverage. In an era where any teenage White girl who was missing for more than two days received impassioned pleas from Nancy Grace, Williams’ kidnapping and subsequent abuse and rescue got about as much attention as your average celebrity divorce. It goes without saying that had a group of Black men and women held a mentally slow White girl hostage and raped her for seven days that Newsweek, Time magazine and every cable channel in America would’ve been covering the story without pause.
This week Williams has brought herself back into the public eye by recanting her entire ordeal through a press conference with her current lawyer. Williams and her caretaker in Columbus, Ohio, claim that she made the whole story up to get back at her ex-boyfriend Bobby Brewster. Further Williams claims she was coerced into maintaining the story by her abusive mother who wanted to milk it for money and fame. When her mother, Carmen Williams, died this past summer she thought it was time to set the story straight.
West Virginia state attorneys who prosecuted the case aren’t trying to hear her story. Having determined years ago that Williams’ mental limitations made her a questionable witness on the stand, they pursued the case based on physical evidence, and the fact that all six of the assailants admitted separately to their guilt. But the question isn’t whether these men and women are guilty (they are) or whether Williams is probably mentally unstable (she is) but if we’re going to see more coverage and inspection of the retraction than we saw of the crime itself.
Two years later, Imus is hosting an obscure show on satellite radio, Vick is a back-up quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, most of the Jena 6 are enrolled in college and the first of the Dunbar rapists has been sentenced.
Hopefully, this time we’ll have the conversation about justice, race, sex and violence that was avoided all those years ago.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)